Learn how to use different shots, angles and framing to create cinematic iPhone video compositions that stand out. Know the rules so you can use or break them.

What is it that makes an image truly cinematic? Is it the camera? Is it the light? How about the angle or framing? Of course it’s a combination of all these things. Learning how to compose cinematic shots with your phone is more important than any lens, fancy accessory or gadget.

With an eye for good composition, you can create beautiful cinematic iPhone videos without much else.

Stari Grad, Hvar, Croatia. Shot on iPhone 7 Plus with FiLMiC Pro.

What is Cinematic iPhone Video?

Cinematic is a word that gets thrown around a lot. It can mean everything and nothing. It’s a word that can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

For our purposes it means something quite specific.

A video is described as cinematic when a combination of technical and creative factors have converged in a way that give it the visual qualities of a motion picture.

I believe these qualities have little to do with the camera and medium as long as some minimum requirements are met.

A world class cinematographer is certainly not tied, or even restricted by a particular camera model or manufacturer, or whether they shoot film, or digital. It’s not about Sony, or Canon, RED, or ARRI. It’s not about a particular camera color science or recorded video format.

Give a great cinematographer nothing but a smartphone and they will see and compose pictures with the same eye that they apply to an ARRI Alexa. The images they produce will be cinematic. Not because of a camera, but because of how they perceive light and shadow, and how they fill a frame.

Of course, there are minimum technical requirements that a camera must meet. There are also technical aspects that guide how a camera is used to capture light, and there are creative aspects.

Cinematic visual qualities and the factors that influence them can be defined and I’ve listed them in order of importance for each.

Technical:

  • Exposure
  • Color Balance
  • Frame Rate
  • Shutter Speed

Creative:

  • Composition
  • Movement
  • Lighting
  • Color Grade

This article is number two of my Ultimate Guide to Creating Cinematic iPhone Video series.

Previously, I covered the topics listed under the Technical side of this list. In this article we’re going to start looking at the creative side, specifically composition.

If you haven’t yet tackled the technical side of the list, I would encourage you to look at that as well.

Cinematic iPhone Video Composition

Learning how to compose beautiful cinematic iPhone imagery is a journey all of its own. It becomes an intuition but starts by knowing and following some rules. The only way to develop that intuition is to keep shooting.

I have categorized some common concepts that will help you achieve cinematic iPhone video composition. I don’t like to think of these as rules, because rules are too rigid. Rather use these to practice and guide your journey.

Shots and Sequences

Shoot for the Edit

You may have heard the phrase “shoot for the edit”. It’s a very important idea in filmmaking. Not only does it provide the visual structure for your edit, it provides structure to your photography.

Stories, whether fictional, narrative or documentary are told in sequences of shots. A sequence helps to direct and guide the attention of your viewer.

Sequences comprise different types of shots. These shots are framed to bring attention to specific action, or information, and to give context. The sequence is constructed to drive the story forward.

Wide Shot

The wide shot is usually framed to give context to a scene or action that is the subject of the sequence. It can reveal location, time and provides a spatial reference for other shots in the sequence. It is wide relative to the framing of other shots in the sequence rather than any objective field of view, or distance from a subject.

For example, a wide shot can just as easily describe a head to toe full body framing of a person in a room, as it can a panoramic vista. The shot in a room may require a pan following the person as he or she moves in order to reveal the whole room, which may be required to communicate the full context of the scene. The panoramic vista may not require movement at all to communicate the same information. Both however, can be described as wide shots.

A wide shot can often be the first shot in a sequence. This is referred to as an establishing shot. However, a sequence can also be built starting from a closer framing of a subject or action, gradually cutting to wider shots that reveal context over time.

A wide shot (WS) is about the subject in relation to their surroundings. Al Qudra, Dubai. Shot iPhone XS Max with FiLMiC Pro.

Medium Shot

The medium shot usually frames the subject or action partially. It provides a closer view of the subject but is wide enough to include sufficient contextual information to smoothly cut to or from a wide or close up shot.

A medium shot (MS). Al Qudra, Dubai. Shot iPhone XS Max with FiLMiC Pro.

Close Up

The close up shot frames a tight and specific portion of an action or subject. It brings focus to something exclusively without communicating much contextual information.

A close up (CU). Al Qudra, Dubai. Shot iPhone XS Max with FiLMiC Pro.

Extreme Close Up

An extreme close up frames an action or subject partially. It is even tighter and more specific in its focus.

An extreme close up (XCU). Al Qudra, Dubai. Shot iPhone XS Max with FiLMiC Pro.

Position

Camera position and the choice of camera angle relative to your scene or subject plays an important role in how your audience perceives your subject.

The choice of camera position and angle can be purely a creative one, especially in the case of wider shots. It may also be a simple physical requirement determined by the limits of possible camera placement.

When the shot represents the point of view of a subject, camera position and angle follows logically from the subject’s eye level towards whatever they are observing.

Framing up the Belagio Fountains, Las Vegas at night to give an impression of scale. Shot on iPhone 7 Plus with FiLMiC Pro.

High Angle

A high angle shot places the camera above the scene or subject, pointing down towards it.

A high angle shot at the pedestrian underpass, Karakoy, Istanbul. Shot on iPhone 7 Plus with FiLMiC Pro.

Low Angle

A low angle shot places the camera below the subject, pointing upwards towards it.

Hvar, Croatia. Shot on iPhone 7 Plus with FiLMiC Pro.
Galata Tower, Istanbul. Shot on iPhone 11 Pro Max with FiLMiC Pro.
Belgrade, Serbia. Shot on iPhone XS Max with FiLMiC Pro.

Eye Level

An eye level shot is a neutral position and matches the eye level of your subject.

Fisherman on Galata Bridge, Karakoy, Istanbul. Shot on iPhone 11 Pro Max with FiLMiC Pro.

Framing

Being selective and deliberate about your camera position and framing is one of the easiest ways to achieve a cinematic iPhone video composition.

Framing your scene or subject should follow the basic guidelines below. Of course, there are exceptions.

Framing is literally about how you frame your subject within their surroundings. Reflections on Las Vegas Blvd. Shot on iPhone 7 Plus with FiLMiC Pro.

Horizon

In most shots, it’s important to maintain a level horizon. Sometimes framing on a tilt is a creative choice, and this is often called a dutch tilt.

If you’re shooting with an anamorphic lens, it’s critical to keep your horizon perfect, and often at exactly half the frame height. If the camera is tilted even by a few degrees, or the horizon is framed above or below the horizontal centre line of the shot, an anamorphic lens will introduce noticeable distortion.

The horizon should remain horizontal. Early morning rays on Glencairn Beach, Cape Town, South Africa. Shot on iPhone 7 Plus with FiLMiC Pro.

Head Room and Eye Line

A subject’s eye line should typically be maintained around 2/3 of the frame height from the bottom of the frame.

Your subject’s eye line should be placed around 2/3 the height of the frame.

Rule of Thirds

Divide your frame into thirds both vertically and horizontally. The four points where these lines intersect are good visual focus points for composing your shots.

Frame subjects or points of interest at the intersections of the lines.

Placement

You should frame your subject on the opposite side of the frame centerline to the direction they are facing. Usually a subject is framed on the right looking toward the left, or on the left looking toward the right. This leaves space for movement or action in the direction they are facing.

As with all of these guidelines, there are times you can break the rules and place a subject centrally, or facing the edge of the frame. If it carries the story, or has purpose, it can work.

Leave space in the frame in the direction your subject is moving. Venice Beach Skate Park, Los Angeles. Shot on iPhone 7 Plus with FiLMiC Pro.

Symmetry

Often a pleasing composition can be achieved by placing a subject centred in the frame rather than offset, especially if they are looking towards the camera. A group of people can also be centred in the frame.

You can also look for ways to frame the background symmetrically. This can result in a very stylised look. We don’t often see things perfectly symmetrically in real life, so this type of composition will stand out, especially if it is consistent.

Dubai Creek. Shot on iPhone 11 Pro Max with FiLMiC Pro.
Amsterdam. Shot on iPhone XS Max with FiLMiC Pro.
Amsterdam. Shot on iPhone XS Max with FiLMiC Pro.

Negative Space

The use of negative space is an incredibly powerful way to convey a sense of isolation, or the scale of a subject’s surroundings.

Ocean, mountains and sky. Framing lots of space. Cape Point, South Africa. Shot on iPhone 7 Plus with FiLMiC Pro.

Perspective

Use natural lines in your background to create depth, and guide the focus of your viewer around the frame. These lines can be found everywhere. Look for architectural elements, whether interior or exterior. They can also be natural, for example, the bank of a river, or a tree line. Paths, roads, highways, bridges, almost anything can be framed in a way that creates a compelling sense of depth, scale and visual focal points.

Glencairn Beach, Cape Town, South Africa. Shot on iPhone 7 Plus with FiLMiC Pro.
Venice Beach, Los Angeles. Shot on iPhone 7 Plus with FiLMiC Pro.
Galata Bridge, Karakoy, Istanbul. Shot on iPhone 11 Pro Max with FiLMiC Pro.

Depth

Perspective and leading lines are not the only way you can create a sense of depth. Layering your image by bringing foreground objects into frame is another way to add interest to your composition.

This can be especially effective in shots where the camera is in motion. The relative difference in motion between foreground, subject and background as the camera moves is often visually appealing.

Dubai Creek. Shot on iPhone 11 Pro Max with FiLMiC Pro.
Dubai Creek. Shot on iPhone 11 Pro Max with FiLMiC Pro.
Venice Beach, Los Angeles. Shot on iPhone 7 Plus with FiLMiC Pro.

The Power of Composition

Cinematic composition is a language all of its own. Learning how to compose a great shot, and assemble those shots into sequences is a skill that you will carry with you for a lifetime. It can elevate images captured with any camera, and any lens far beyond the limitations of equipment.

A picture is worth 1000 words. Cinematography is a hugely powerful and exciting canvas to express ideas and communicate emotion at a base level.

Cinematic composition is something that happens in your head and your heart. Once you know the technicalities of vocabulary and structure, it becomes instinctive. The best way to learn is by shooting, and watching the work of great cinematographers that inspire you.

Over time you’ll start to see your own unique style develop in your work.

Please don’t hesitate to comment with your questions either here, on Youtube, or hit me up on twitter, I will always reply.

12 Comments

  1. Steven Dempsey

    Richard, you really nailed it in this article. The word “cinematic” has been batted around for decades at this point but few people really understand what it means. I remember back in the Panasonic DVX100 days, I was already shooting everything at 24fps with a 2.35:1 ratio but it took me a long time to figure out why some scenes looked “filmic” and others just didn’t. I think working within the confines of that aspect ratio and also understanding the limitations of what the camera was capable of capturing helped me over time to figure it out. You can learn this stuff over time but true understanding comes from the wisdom you gain from practicing as you suggest. It does become instinctive after that. It has made me see movies differently. I watch them on two different levels now, as they were intended and then on a purely technical level, studying every visual decision. Aside from all the great advice you gave, I would say that one non-visual element that also contributes greatly to creating cinematic videos is good sound. There’s a whole cinematic element to how to record that too. It has taken me an age to figure that out. Great sound can create another dimension entirely. Anyway, I always get excited when I see a new article from you. Your writing has a rare precision and your insight into the art of cinematography is obvious by the great images that accompany your thoughts.

    • Richard Lackey

      Wow Steven, really, thank you so much! I absolutely couldn’t agree more about sound. In fact, it’s more than 50% of the emotional impact and “payload” of a scene. I love layering sound design, creating atmosphere and depth. That’s one of the reasons I mostly end up throwing out recorded sound and instead build it up from scratch using high quality recordings, ambient recordings and foley from sound libraries.

  2. Mitchell Payton

    hey that was me the “anonymous” comment …. NOT lost in the ether-space!!!!!

  3. M. Covert Payton

    okay i accidentally hit “go” or “send” or whatever and lost my ENTIRE comment …. a veeeeerrrrrryyyyyy looooong comment. Sad day.

    Thanks for everything … longer comment to follow!

    • Richard Lackey

      Oh no! Now I really want to know what you wrote! So sorry about that! I look forward to hearing more from you.

  4. Looking forward to that camera movement “lesson” …. and (secretly) hoping that you’re going to do a (video) lesson on gimbals and that you’re gonna do it with a Zhiyun Smooth 4 (because I need some help, and so far your explanations are the clearest and simplest, while still maintaining a high level of complexity and information transfer. Wish I lived near you! (now I gotta go hit up that FiLMiC Pro article, cuz i KNOW it’s gonna be a goldmine — even though I’ve prob’ly watched a dozen FiLMiC pro “tutorials” ….) Thanks for the free lessons, those of us on SEVERE budgets really need quality stuff like this — there’s plenty of garbage out there for free, it’s nice to find quality that is (truly) free.

    • Richard Lackey

      Wow! Thank you so much! That’s super encouraging! I made a video last year looking at some basic types of camera movement. It might be too basic for you, but the upcoming article will go into more. Here’s the link to the video just in case it’s of any interest. https://youtu.be/uRZqECUWBjw

  5. What a wealth of information in this one article. Thank you for your expertise, Richard. The world of iPhone cinematography is only beginning to open up to endless possibilities. Best to you!

  6. Pedja stanisic

    I can only admire your concise and down to the point rounded sentences, simple and without pretentious obfuscation . Elegant and effective, effortlessly.

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